“The Long Beach Way”: A Conversation with Long Beach Superintendent Chris Steinhauser
Long Beach Unified School District in California has long been recognized as a model urban school system. Winner of the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2003, it has been a finalist for that award five times.
The district hasn’t achieved this success by flitting from reform to reform or looking for silver bullets. Rather, it has spent most of the past two decades building on the same educational strategies, focusing on data, community buy-in and staff development. We recently spoke to Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser (who has spent the past 28 years in the district as a teacher, principal, deputy superintendent and, since 2002, superintendent) about the “Long Beach way.”
Public School Insights: What prompted Long Beach to undertake big reforms for its kids in the first place?
Steinhauser: We've been on this long journey since about 1992. What really prompted it at that time was a massive economic meltdown. Our city was closing its naval base. And McDonnell Douglas [a major area employer] was going through a massive shutdown. They laid off 35,000 employees over a two year period. Also, if you remember, those were the days of major civil unrest in the LA area. We were having massive flight from our system, mainly of Caucasian students.
Basically what we did was say, “Okay. We have got to stop this.” So our board adopted several major initiatives. We implemented K-8 uniforms. We were the first district in California to end social promotion. We introduced a program called the 3rd Grade Reading Initiative to help with that goal, and we also developed a policy that eighth-graders who had two or more Fs could not go on to high school. And we launched a major partnership called Seamless Education with our local junior college and
our local university.
All these things happened at the same time. The uniforms have worked very well, and now we have two high schools using uniforms. And the reading initiative took off like fire, and it's just grown every year. So today, thanks to that initial initiative, we probably have the most rigorous social promotion policy in California. At every grade level at the elementary school, there is huge accountability that must be met before kids can go on. For example, if you are in the fifth grade you cannot go on to middle school unless you are at the end of fourth grade reading level, which is one year below grade level, and you've mastered the four operations in math—you not only know the basic facts but you can use them at application levels. We have locally developed assessments that we use to measure that performance.
So everything has just built up over the years. We see ourselves as a continuous improvement district. We look at the data every year, target certain issues and build upon those issues.
Public School Insights: As you did this work, did you feel that your community was with you?
Steinhauser: Yes, they were with us. The way that we started back in 1992, and we've done it in the same way every year with any initiative that we have brought forward, was by inviting union members, teachers, parents, business leaders and the higher education community all to the table to talk about whatever the initiative was.
For example, I actually co-chaired the reading initiative. My partner and I met with about 80 parents and other members of the community for about six months. We designed the policy brief, and then those individuals shared it with the board. The board adopted it. From there we met on a yearly basis to look at the results. What did the data say? How many kids were being retained, where did we need to make refinements? That type of thing.
We use this process with any type of major initiative that we have. So when we roll an initiative out, we have taken time to weed out potential problems. And there is major buy-in because everyone has had an opportunity to participate. So when we present these initiatives at the board meetings we do not have a big fanfare or protest or any of that kind of stuff, because it is usually teachers or parents who are presenting the refinements of the initiative.
Public School Insights: So they are actually involved in creating what you do.
Steinhauser: Yes, from day one.
Public School Insights: I've heard of something called the “Long Beach way” that helps unite a lot of your teachers and instructional strategies. What is that?
Steinhauser: Part of it is what I just explained. In our system, we believe that some things should come from the top and some things should come from the bottom. I will give you an example. We have a teacher who redesigned his fifth grade math program. He got some phenomenal results, and we asked him to share his program with some other schools. From there, it was shared with more schools. Now that program is the base program of our school system, and because of it our kids in the elementary grades are actually beating the state in the percent of kids who are proficient and advanced in mathematics. We have made about a 24% gain in about four years, and we have only one elementary school the district that does not have at least 50% of their kids at proficiency or above in mathematics. That is an example of how we are flexible and allow teachers to be innovative. But everything is based on data, so if the data shows it is not working then we don't do it.
We also do things differently to meet our needs. So if a mandate comes down from either the state or the federal government, we are not going to do it exactly the way it is prescribed unless it meets our needs. We are going to build upon what we have already done. I will give you another example. When we were having the reading wars in California—whole language versus phonics only—we said “No, no, no. We believe in a balanced literacy program. Yes, phonics and decoding are absolutely critical but so is all this other stuff--guided reading and everything else.” So we kept everything. We will actually go to our own drummer, so to speak, as long as we can back everything up with data.
Public School Insights: So does this mean that you have very strong sets of common curricula and common instructional strategies that you encourage teachers to use throughout the system?
Steinhauser: Yes. We have over 250 district-level common assessments, which does not count the common assessments at the schools, developed by the teachers. And every teacher in our school system is required to go through two years of professional development provided by the district. In that professional development they are going to talk about teaching strategies. They're going to talk about assessment, how to use data, that type of thing.
We also have pacing charts for every single curricular area that we have in the district. But we tell schools that they do not have to use these pacing charts—that they are just suggestions. However, what is not negotiable is the common assessments. They are all evaluated based on growth on these common assessments. If teachers have different ways to teach certain information, that is great. That goes back to the Long Beach way. But those common assessments are what they will be evaluated on.
Public School Insights: When you say “they,” do you mean the teachers or students?
Steinhauser: Everybody. Everyone’s performance is based on that data. So, for example, if a school is doing terribly in mathematics, we would intervene. The intervention would be based on the level of deficiency. So the greater the deficiency, the more intervention, which means that the school would have less control over how it spends its resources, what its focus areas would be, that type of thing. The better a school is doing, the greater autonomy it will be given to achieve its results.
Public School Insights: With these common assumptions in the school system, is there ever any tension with the kind of work you do to meet students’ individual needs?
Steinhauser: I would say no. We have a major professional development push on differentiating instruction. And through our data system, when a teacher gives these assessments, he or she will get an item analysis based on the students’ answers. They can have the kids regrouped immediately so they can reteach that skill the next day, or extend that skill, whatever it happens to be. So there is a lot of support there to help make their lives more manageable and make it easier to meet students’ individual needs.
Public School Insights: So there is professional development support, technological support and all sorts of different support from the district.
Steinhauser: Correct. Everyone is working together. However, support for each school is going to be a bit different, because each school has a different focus or need. And we look at what the issues are and support that school in whatever areas of need that they have.
Public School Insights: We hear a lot about urban districts that have problems finding teachers, and we hear about teachers who are brought in under emergency credentials and things of that nature. Is that the case in Long Beach?
Steinhauser: It is not. While we are not hiring a lot of people right now, we typically retain about 93% of our new teachers. We have about 5,000 credentialed teachers applying every year, so we really don't have a problem.
We do still have some areas of high need—special education, and in some cases mathematics. But we have a partnership through the Noyce Foundation with our local university to grow some of our own mathematics teachers, and we try to work with our partners as often as possible.
Public School Insights: I have heard about the grow-your-own strategy that you have, and the partnerships with universities that allow students who are still pre-service teachers to experience the district and what it is like to teach there. Could you tell me a bit more about that?
Steinhauser: Back in 1992, when we were basically redesigning everything, we started developing what was called the Seamless Education program. We met with our partners at CSU Long Beach and told them that the teacher education program needed to be redesigned, because we were actually re-teaching folks when they came into our district.
To their credit, they had our people sit on their strategic planning process and redesigned their multiple subjects credential program. And now about half of the teacher candidates’ methods instructors at the university are teachers in Long Beach. So teacher candidates are already getting the Long Beach way when they are at the university, and when they are hired in Long Beach we take it and we follow up with the next steps. So we do not miss a beat.
The other piece that is really important is that when we redesigned these programs, these teacher candidates worked at our school sites as student teachers, but they also worked at our school sites as teacher aides. So they get employed that way.
Another piece is that we have created several cohorts for masters degrees, whether they be in content or leadership development. For example, there might be a group of teachers who want to get their master’s in social studies. They all meet at one of our schools and CSU Long Beach designs university coursework related to the work they are doing in their classrooms. So it is very powerful professional development for that period of time they are getting that degree.
The university has just been outstanding in working with us to design these programs that benefit the students at their university as well as those students work when they get here, and that enhance their skills once they're already here.
Public School Insights: So you are not having to import all kinds of teachers from somewhere else, through all kinds of different programs, to meet your needs.
Steinhauser: Absolutely not. We hire about 75% of our teachers from Cal State Long Beach.
Public School Insights: Wow. And do you have a sense of what your turnover numbers are?
Steinhauser: Most people stay here. Again, only about 7% of teachers leave after their first three years.
I think that one reason that people like to come here…or what the teachers will tell you, and I think administrators would say the same thing—because we do something very similar on the administrative level, in growing our own—is that one of the major keys to our success is our professional development. It is differentiated for different folks for different needs.
Number two to that would be our use of data. And that is obviously tied to professional development. We always have a theme in our professional development action plan on how to analyze data and use it to enhance student achievement.
Public School Insights: Are there any questions that I should have asked you but didn't?
Steinhauser: I think the question that people ask all the time is, has it always been easy? It has not. I will give you an example. Back when we started this whole reform effort, about five years in—probably about 1997 or 1998—our teachers were complaining that they were just testing students to death. So what we did, with the union, was bring people together. We called it the “Paperwork Reduction Committee,” for lack of a better term. The union picked half the people and we picked half the people. We had about 80 teachers participate. We met for several months, and we finally said, “You do not have to do any assessments that you do not want to do. What you have to do is you have to meet these outcomes. You tell us which ones you do not want to do, the ones that are not effective in helping you be a better teacher.” They did not drop one assessment.
The issue there was about communication and getting teachers to be a part of the bigger conversation. It was great when we got everyone in the room and they talked, and teachers heard from a peer that “This is really important to me because I do XY and Z with it,” while someone else would do something else with it. We have a good group of professionals who want to do their best. And what I think was the most powerful thing for them was that they recognized that they didn’t all have to do it the same way, that we just have to use data to drive our instruction. That is the bottom line. From there we have not had another meeting like that.
Public School Insights: This goes back to the notion that you really brought the community together—the community of teachers in this case—to create buy-in.
Steinhauser: Right, and I would also say the community at large, because we share all kinds of data with the community. We share good data, and we share bad data. Whenever we do an initiative, we don't hide anything. We are very transparent. And that is one reason why I think that we do not have a lot of politics with our board members. We put it out there for everyone to see, and then we talk about how we're addressing it. If someone comes to complain, we ask, “How can you help be part of the solution? You cannot just complain. You have to be part of the solution.”
Public School Insights: Do you find that it is easy to make the data you have understandable to the public, so that they really understand the implications and can react?
Steinhauser: Oh, yes. And we have a system where parents of students in grades six through 12 have access to all their students’ data 24/7. My elementary parents want that same access.
So my parents know their students’ homework assignments. They know grades on tests. They know the class syllabus. And one of the next things that we are going to put on there is the attendance portal, so the parents will be able to see if their kid is in period two. Right now, they just know if their kid misses class after the fact. The next part is going to be that you can see it right then.
Also, we're going to open up the actual assessments. Right now parents can just see grades, but our next piece of the program is going to make it so a parent in fifth grade, for example, could look at the trimester test and look at every single item that their kid got right or wrong. They could then be directed to a resource on how he or she could help the child on their deficiencies.
This is a communication tool that the parents, students and teachers all use via the Internet. It has been very powerful.
Public School Insights: Have you found teachers very much on board with this strategy?
Steinhauser: Oh yes. I would say 95% of them are on board. We had a few people who are not technologically there, and some people who didn’t want to do this. So when we started this program and we told the parents that the grades would be updated on a regular basis—not a daily basis, but roughly every two weeks—we told the teachers who did not want to do it that, “You do not have to use School Loop, but what you have to do is communicate with the parent. So if a parent calls you and says, ‘I want to see my kid’s grade’ then you have to meet with them.” And it is much easier to do it via e-mail than to schedule all those meetings.
The parents love this, and they just keep firing back at us how we can make it better for them. And even in a district like Long Beach, which is very poor and very diverse, about 75% to 80% of our parents have access to the internet at their own homes. If they don't, they can go to either our libraries or the public library to get access. So we are very fortunate in that arena.